Updated: May 18, 2021
It’s Never Too Late to Pick Up an Instrument—Here are 5 Tips for Adult Beginners DECEMBER 26, 2018
By Miranda Wilson
Strangers see my cello in airports and approach me. “I love cello! I’ve always wished I could play.”
I say, “Why don’t you?”
They demur. “I don’t have time.”
“I’m too old.”
But behind these easy excuses generally lies the real deterrent.
1. Make the Leap
What’s really stopping them? “I felt ridiculous,” admits 32-year-old Nadège Berckmans, a schoolteacher in France. “I thought that people would mock me and find it was absurd to want to do that at my age; that I shouldn’t spend so much time, energy, and money on things I could never have the ability to do really well.” Floridian Ashley Foss, 33, echoes this. “I was embarrassed by my lack of skill,” she says. “I felt like I had to learn a few things to catch up to an acceptable level besides total beginner.”
Luckily, in both cases, love of music overcame the initial reluctance. “I felt irrepressibly drawn to the cello,” says Berckmans. “So many things appeal to me—the sound, the look of it, so elegant and noble . . . the vibrations echoing all over the body and touching the soul!”
It takes bravery to start lessons, but according to the mature beginners I interviewed, no one is ever too old. Floridian Frank Nichols, 68, started playing cello in retirement after realizing it was what he wanted to do “when I grew up.” Coloradan Nancy Rangel, 63, believes age is actually an advantage: “It’s easier as an adult to make the cello a priority if you want to. Once the kids are out of the house is a great time to start.”
Other adult beginners feel inspired to start alongside their children. Virginian Carolyn Smith, 52, started in her 40s so she could help her son practice, and worked through eight volumes of the Suzuki Cello School. Music became central to their family life: “My practicing and struggling role-modeled the grit and perseverance necessary for the long-term goal of learning an instrument,” she says. Foss started cello after her daughter began trumpet lessons. “I was hooked!” she says. Time and money were tight, since Foss has five children, so she took a dog-walking job and found a teacher who would let her come bi-weekly.
2. Find the Ideal Teacher
It’s important to find a teacher who’s experienced with adult learners. For kids, orchestra is in their school schedule, and parents may enforce and supervise practice. For adults, lack of structure presents a challenge. “I have to carve out [practice] time from all my other responsibilities without feeling guilty,” says Foss. “Additionally, finding a group to play with is much more difficult.”
Mike Ko, a 50-year-old cybersecurity analyst from Virginia, concurs. “Adults have many responsibilities and priorities, and cello sometimes gets bumped down in the priority list. It’s important for teachers to understand this.”
Flexibility is crucial, both in scheduling and in pedagogy. Carol Haynes, a 60-year-old former schoolteacher in England, deliberately sought a teacher who specialized in adult students. The fact is, it’s usually harder for adults to master physical playing skills. “Children have little muscle training and are blank pages,” says Nichols. “Older adults have a lifetime of muscle memory in posture, hand form, and movements to unlearn. Combine that with arthritis and injuries, and a teacher must be able to recommend methods of overcoming these.”
Luckily, learning to read music is often easier for adults, who may grasp the logic more quickly. Additionally, motivation to practice can be stronger in adulthood, says Diego García Mantilla, 26, a musician from Peru. Having previously studied guitar and piano before majoring in trumpet, he realized that learning cello as an adult helped his tone and intonation on other instruments, and went into a “full classical spree on the cello.”
3. Set Reasonable Goals
It is a common goal among adult beginners to make music with others. Most of the players I spoke to belong to a community orchestra, or aspire to. For 50-year-old Belgian Birgit Debrabandere, a chemical engineer, playing orchestral and chamber music keeps her positive. “Playing in a group is fun!” she says. “When the cello section has a solo in the orchestra, it is so nice when we make a good sound.”
When it comes to solo performing, interviewees are divided. “Ever hear a cat whose tail got caught under a rocking chair?” jokes Nichols. While 58-year-old Marianne Flagg does perform solos in her teacher’s studio recitals in Boise, Idaho, she confesses: “I dread them. I’m still learning how to marshal my nerves and keep my bow from bouncing from anxiety.” A few, including Haynes, actively seek out opportunities for solo performance.
“Realistically,” she says, “I know I will never be a [professional] soloist, but I do want to play most of the standard classical repertoire and ideally find outlets to play for people.” Whatever your goals, make sure they are compatible with finding joy and personal satisfaction in your music making.
4. Make Use of Your Transferable Skills
Mature beginners have something children don’t: professional and life experience. One of my students, a retired engineer, brings his mathematical problem-solving skills to lessons, always asking detailed questions. It’s not enough for him to know how techniques work, he wants to know why. Having to explain with the precision he requests has made me a better teacher.
Argentinian Martin Lagutt, 39, a Spanish second-language teacher, found learning music comparable to the way adults master new languages. “Young students learn solfège faster,” he says, “[while] an older student could be sitting for hours, fighting to find a little progress. The difference is that older students are more persistent.” Berckmans, another teacher, finds that her knowledge of human learning helps with practicing. “I’m very conscientious in lessons and practice time, and apply the same principles as when I was a student—attentiveness, reflective learning, background reading, discipline, purposeful practice,” she says. Flagg, an editor, applies her analytical skills to the movements of cello playing. “I am interested in the details of how to do things, such as how to set the bow, and how to figure out efficient fingerings.” Rangel, a physical therapist, treated her own problem when arthritis threatened to derail her cello playing: by putting silver ring splints on the affected fingers, she found she could continue.
5. Enjoy the Rewards
My interviewees for this article came from five continents and many walks of life. They had one thing in common: love of music. What would they say to would-be beginners?
Claire Fowler, a 36-year-old teacher in Australia, says “Seize the day and start! You won’t look back. Being a concert soloist is probably off the cards, but making beautiful music to share with others is definitely a possibility.”
“Have patience,” advises García Mantilla. “Celebrate every little step.”
Haynes sums up her experience: “The day I started playing the cello my life changed utterly in ways that I could not have imagined. In many ways the anniversary of my first lesson is more significant than my birthday.”